The knives have been out for Raheem Sterling ever since he joined Manchester City.
The club splashed out £44 million to Liverpool for his services in the summer of 2015 and it made the winger one of the most expensive signings in English football. It was one of the biggest transfer tussles, as the Merseyside club refused to budge on their valuation, while City were very wary of overspending having been stung under Financial Fair Play Regulations in the past.
Eventually, the deal went through and ever since Sterling has been booed up and down the country. Despite having no connection to the vast majority of City’s opposition – he came through the youth set-up at Queens Park Rangers before joining Liverpool for an initial £600k in 2010 – the 22-year-old takes the brunt of most fans’ anger wherever he goes.
Already this season, he’s notably been jeered throughout City’s 4-1 victory at Stoke in August and their 2-1 success at Burnley in November. Meanwhile, there have been many sets of supporters that have derided his every touch of the ball from the away end of the Etihad.
Why? Surely the only sets of fans with any recourse to do that are Liverpool’s? He left the club under a cloud, having turned down a reportedly high contract offer from them – though he did it because he believes it will improve his chances of success in the long term.
Already this season, Sterling has proved himself to be a key man in City’s team under Pep Guardiola. He has been far more impressive for his side when switched to the right flank, a position he barely occupied under Manuel Pellegrini, and he’s been one of the biggest attacking threats in the side. He commented that the former manager’s style was stifling his ability – and now he’s able to play more freely, he’s been on fire.
The winger is creating key chances – in the 5-0 battering of West Ham, he was causing chaos in the home side’s box every time he got on the ball and he was unlucky not to have scored the second goal.
The England international should have been given a penalty as he was clearly felled in the Everton area during the 4-0 loss at Goodison Park – and it came at a time that a successful spot-kick would have changed the game.
But that raises another issue that weaves into the Sterling narrative; he has to do more to be fouled. Most attackers who are shouldered off the ball get a free kick, more often than not Sterling isn’t and he’s expected to be stronger. Opposition fans then jeer him again as he stands up from his hefty challenge, while the likes of David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne will be putting the ball down for a free kick.
Sterling created the chance for Sergio Aguero to score in the 2-1 home victory over Burnley (though he should have scored himself instead of tripping over when one-on-one with the goalkeeper).
He won the penalty that broke the deadlock in the 3-0 win at Hull on Boxing Day, causing panic by running at the Tigers’ defence.
He also scored the winner against Arsenal, as City came from behind to win 2-1 just before Christmas.
All of this flies in the face of the narrative that seems to be forming around the winger – or, at least, one that many seem to want to form. It’s more of a story if Sterling fails, especially for the money that was paid out on him, but this seems to run a lot deeper than the tale of a good old “high-profile flop”.
Chants of “you let your country down” from the Burnley fans earlier this season were frankly baffling – none of the England team that represented their country in an awful Euro 2016 campaign last summer did themselves proud, yet Sterling is the fall guy for that miserable tournament.
The likes of Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Harry Kane or Wayne Rooney all get off scot-free. Were any of them any better? Hardly.
Straight after that tournament, Sterling was hammered in the national press for spending his money. He was then hammered in January 2017 for shopping in a budget store – a story that made it to press despite the photograph sparking it being two-and-a-half years old. Whatever he does, Sterling can’t win.
the Daily Star who lambasted Raheem Sterling for taking an easyJet flight, have now had a go at him for driving an expensive car. pic.twitter.com/AoW2O5nZrY
— Ben Wignall (@BenWignall1) November 3, 2016
For the record, that house he was “showing off” was bought for his mother – who had helped and supported him from a young age after they moved to London from Jamaica and who he wants to help because of all she had done for him and his career.
Sterling is a footballer who understands his market value, and who wants to achieve the best he can. He didn’t leave Liverpool out of disrespect, but to better himself – and he’ll do the same to City if the opportunity to move to the next level comes up.
He’s been lynched by the press and opposition fans for wanting to reach the top of his game; is there something that rankles with the idea of a young black man becoming successful?
If this really were about his performances for the national team in the last European Championships, then it wouldn’t have started in the 2015/16 season. The jeers and taunts would have also been aimed at some of the other England players from the disastrous campaign in France.
If this were solely about a young player taking a big transfer to another club, then John Stones would get it in the neck, too – but there’s often barely a noise when the ex-Everton centre-half gets on the ball for City, save for the game at Goodison Park. Compare that to the decibel level when Sterling takes possession.
In a world that likes to believe the problem of racism is long gone, it’s difficult not to feel like there are racial undertones to the abuse Sterling receives, even if it’s not overt.
It’s time to ask why so many opponents decide to give the winger grief. Perhaps the answer isn’t as comfortable as we’d like to think.
Written by David Mooney
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